Category Archives: American beers

What do Brits Think of American Craft Brewing?

Vintage American beer label.

Earlier today, we saw this interesting question on Twitter:

Now, there’s no simple answer, and, even if the British beer fraternity did share a single opinion, we wouldn’t be qualified to state it. Nonetheless, here’s our attempt to summarise the various camps.

1. People stuck in the nineteen-seventies don’t know it exists

Back then, there really wasn’t much ‘characterful’ American beer — check out Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer for a valiant attempt to find some. As far as British beer enthusiasts were concerned, American beer was all ‘cold fizzy flavourless piss’. Some people, though they profess to be ‘into their beer’, still believe this is the case, if our experience of conversations at beer festivals is anything to go by.

2. Some people seem to dislike America, let alone American beer

They deny any American influence on British brewing in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary; they fail to see what American beer has to offer that can’t be found better elsewhere; and find the people in 5, below, extremely irritating.

3. Some simply prefer British beer (or beer from elsewhere)

There’s no malice in it — they just like what’s local and fresh. The beer from here is pretty decent and increasingly varied and interesting — why look abroad? Many ‘real ale’ enthusiasts are probably in this camp. British  drinkers and brewers who had their ‘eyes opened’ by American beer before, say, 2007, when there were few examples of, e.g. strong, intensely aromatic British IPAs, have moved into this camp in recent years. (Brewers are sometimes motivated by a protectionist impulse: ‘Buy British!’)

4. Some feel very warm towards American craft beer

They’re interested in what’s going on in the US; will drink an interesting US beer in preference to a boring British one; generally like British beers in the US style.

5. Some think American craft beer and the attendant culture are where it’s at, and everything else is basically rubbish

The chaps at Brewdog have expressed this view, and are fairly open in their worship of Stone Brewing. We’ve spoken to other British brewers who were absolutely clear that their favourite beers and greatest inspirations are American. Many brew beers which seem to us to be obvious attempts to clone specific US brews. Some enthusiasts speak with almost religious fervour of beer enjoyed on trips to the US.

This is traditionally where people comment “I’m a 4!” and so on. Feel free to do so, or to suggest categories you think we’ve missed.

Two American Wheat Beers

Two American wheat beers from Fordham and Widmer Bros.

‘I’m such a huge obsessive enthusiast for American wheat beers,’ said no-one, ever.

After our recent experience with a Japanese wheat beer that brought nothing to the table, we had low expectations for these two specimens from Widmer Brothers and Fordham. We were pleasantly surprised by both, at least in terms of their difference from other wheat beers on the UK market.

The Original American Weizen

Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen (4.9% ABV, £2.19 330ml from Noble Green Wines) has been around long enough to have earned an ‘oral history’, being first brewed in 1984. Its claim to fame is that it invented a new ‘style’, American Wheat: despite its otherwise German-inspired recipe, it is not fermented with the famous yeast strain that makes Bavarian wheat beer smell like bananas.

Or, to put it another way, it is German wheat beer without the very thing that makes it so distinctive. Curry without all those stupid spices. Opera without all the singing.

We expected something like Erdinger Alkoholfrei, especially given its journey across the Atlantic, and it had the same dirty, dusty look about it. But — phew! — it was actually bright and fruity — a wholesome multi-grain health food of a beer. (The Portman Group can’t tell off bloggers, can they?) In lieu of bananas, we were reminded of pineapple cubes. There was a spot of spiciness, too, that brought to mind Chimay Gold.

One complaint: we’d have liked a bigger bottle, as this is a beer to be drunk by the pint without too much pondering or pontificating.

Too orangey for crows

Fordham Wisteria (4% ABV) was one of a case of samples we were sent by the brewery’s UK distributor last month. Though it is an American wheat beer, it is not an American Wheat, if you see what we mean, being fermented with the ‘authentic’ Bavarian yeast.

It needed more carbonation and sparkle — not something that can be said of most German wheat beers — and its semi-flatness made it look unappealing in the glass, and taste somewhat sickly.

As well as the expected banana, we also thought we detected orange oil, and a spot of rose-water. It had a dry chalkiness, presumably from the suspended yeast that made it cloudy, which helped to counteract some of the toffeeish malt and fruitiness.

That malt might be this beer’s other problem: it is dark orange in colour, exactly like wheat beers we’ve bodged together at home using English pale ale malt rather than the prescribed super-pale pilsner malt. We would probably prefer it if it had been made with a paler base malt, and with more wheat in the mix.

After all those complaints, on the whole, we liked it, and would drink it again.

The Myth of the Authentic IPA

From an advertisement for Whitbread IPA, 1935.
From an advertisement for Whitbread IPA, 1935.PA

Modern beer historians have done some wonderful work challenging myths about India Pale Ale. The one we’re interested right now is this, as expressed by Martyn Cornell in a post which then demolishes it:

North American craft brewers more closely adhere to early IPA specifications than do British brewers who, as a group, do not.

How did that belief arise? What was going on in the world of beer to convince everyone (including us) that, if a beer wasn’t strong and aromatic, it wasn’t a ‘real’ IPA? Here are four possible contributions to the development of that myth.

1. The Durden Park Beer Circle published, Old British Beers and How to Make Them, an influential collection of historic recipes, in 1976. We haven’t got our hands on an original edition but our 2003 reprint contains this on Hodgson’s India Pale Ale

…had an OG over 70, a hop rate of 2.5 oz per gallon… [and was] carefully primed and dry hopped before despatch to India. Fully matured by the tropical heat, India ale had a hop nose, full flavour and the luscious taste that only comes with an initially over-hopped ale that has fully matured.

2. Anchor Liberty, first brewed in 1975 using tons of the then new Cascade hop, was ‘inspired’ by the British practice of dry hopping, and its strength was similar to that of early nineteenth-century British IPAs. The brewery was old; their Steam Beer was a survivor of an earlier age; the beer had a faux-vintage label; and was brewed to commemorate American independence. All of that, perhaps, added up to a sense of historical authenticity it didn’t exactly deserve.

3. Though he barely mentioned IPA in his 1977 World Guide to Beer, Michael ‘Beer Hunter’ Jackson’s 1982 Pocket Guide (the one most people we’ve spoken to actually owned, because it was smaller and cheaper) describes the intensely bitter, hop-aromatic Ballantine’s IPA as a survivor of an earlier age of American brewing, descended from nineteenth-century British beers. It’s easy to see how this might have developed into the myth of the ‘more authentic American IPA’.

4. In 1993, at the request of Mark Dorber of the White Horse in West London, Bass brewed an IPA to a historic recipe. It was c.6.5% ABV with 84 units of bitterness, according to a contemporary Guardian article by Roger Protz (4/9/1993): ‘it’s like putting your head inside a sack of hops fresh from Kent. The aroma is pungent, spicy, peppery and resiny, and the hops dominate the palate and the finish as well.’

5. The excitement around the recreated Bass IPA, and the White Horse festival it was brewed for, triggered a brief historical IPA mania. Robin Young of The Times described IPAs brewed to nineteenth-century recipes as ‘the special fad’ of the 1994 Great British Beer Festival; and the 1995 Good Beer Guide reports on the preceding year’s ‘IPA fever’. The emphasis in most reports was on the authenticity and hop ‘oomph’ of these brews compared to supposedly ‘Bowdlerized’ modern IPAs.

Anyone else have any suggestions? Is there a c.1980 US home brewing text, perhaps, that makes the claim?

UPDATE: we have an answer, we think. Roger Protz’s 2001 book India Pale Ale (written with Clive Le Pensée) includes a detailed account of how IPA was ‘revived’ in the nineties, beginning with a seminar at the White Horse in 1990, followed up in 1994. There is much talk of Bowdlerizing and ‘true IPA’, and reports of a trans-Atlantic agreement on the bare minimum spec for an IPA: 5.5% ABV, 40 units of bitterness.

‘World Beer’ in the UK: a timeline

Pete's Wicked Ale -- label detail.

This is a work in progress which overlaps with an earlier, more general timeline, and we’re still corresponding with a few ‘insiders’ who should be able to help us fill in gaps.

What seems obvious already, however, is how slowly foreign beer made its way into the UK market over the course of decades (you had to like Chimay Rouge or Anchor Steam) and how sudden the rush of the last ten years seems by comparison.

Is all the ‘Urquell and Chimay aren’t what they used to be’ talk partly a result of those beers having been here the longest? Familiarity breeding contempt?

And is Cooper’s Sparkling Ale even remotely as cool now as it was in 2002?

1955 ‘World lagers’ widely available (German, Danish); Pilsner Urquell; Maerzen, bock, Oktoberfestbier in some outlets; strong foreign stouts on order. According to Andrew Campbell in The Book of Beer, Tuborg imperial stout could be ‘got in’ by specialist off-licences such as the Vintage House in Old Compton Street.The Pilsner Urquell company had an office in Mark Lane, London EC3, in 1968.
1968 Becky’s Dive Bar: 200+ bottled beers. Lots of ‘world lager’, but basically anything ‘foreign’ she could get her hands on.
August 1974 World Beer Festival, Olympia, London Mostly ‘international pilsner’, but also EKU strong lager from Germany.
November 1974 Chimay (Rouge?) becomes regular UK import. Through off-licence chain Arthur Rackham.
1975 Cooper’s Sparkling Ale from Australia available. Mentioned by Richard Boston in a list of desert island beers, alongside Chimay.
1977 Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer. We’re still assessing the impact of this book. Thesis: didn’t sell many copies, but everyone who bought one opened a brewery, import company, pub or bar; or became a beer writer themselves.
1979 Anchor Steam, Duvel available at CAMRA Great British Beer Festival. Hugely expensive: £1.65 for ‘third of a pint’ bottle of Anchor Steam, while British ales were at 35p a pint.
1979 and 1980  Cave Direct and James Clay founded. (We’re still assessing the significance of this.)
c.1980 Chimay Rouge in pubs. E.g. The White Horse, Hertford. (Thanks, Des!)
c.1982 Pitfield Beer Shop opens. By 1988 at the latest, selling Liefmann’s Kriek, Samichlaus,
1988 Hoegaarden arrives. Listed by Roger Protz in his pick of the year.
1989 Liefmann’s Frambozen available. 1989 article lists it among speciality beers at Grog Blossom off licence, Notting Hill, West London.
1990 Brooklyn Lager arrives. Available only in Harrods!
1991 Crazy for bottled ‘designer beer’ takes hold. Mostly ‘world lager’, but Daily Mirror lists Chimay Blue, Judas and other Belgian beers. Also, Pinkus Alt.
1992 Belgos opens in London. Tipped by stock pundits as a good investment.
1993 Hoegaarden in Whitbread pubs.Anchor Liberty Ale available.

German wheat beers slated as ‘next big thing’.

Mainstreaming of ‘world beer’? 

Cascade hops start to be talked about.

1994-95 Several lengthy articles in the UK press about the ‘explosion’ of US craft brewing.
1995 Thresher off-licences run full-page newspaper ads for their ‘world beer’ list. Early use of the term ‘world beer’ in this particular way; more ‘mainstreaming’.
1996 Pete’s Wicked Ale (US) in Tesco stores. Big time mainstreaming!
1998 Belgian beer bar craze.Hogshead pubs (Cambridge, Manchester, Aberdeen) offering large ranges of Belgian beer. L’Abbaye, Charterhouse St, London, offering 28 Belgian beers, including Westmalle, Rochefort, Orval.